Photo: Kevin Pang. Graphic: Natalie Peeples

Welcome to MmmPop, our exploration of unexpected ways to use soda pop in recipes.

A colleague of my dad’s—it was either Poz or Ratt, or someone he met tending bar in the ’70s, I can’t recall—gave him a sloppy joe recipe that I’ve now been making for over 20 years.

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Just ketchup and Coke?” I remember asking my dad. It sounded like Ratt’s handiwork, in hindsight. I had concurrent thoughts of “you’re pulling my chain, that’s disgusting” and “that sounds easy to make.” When pressed, he just shrugged and confirmed by repeating the two ingredients.

This happened when I was 17, the perfect age to not question the recipe’s plausibility and just run with it. It was easy to remember and cheap to make. Oddly, nobody in my family had made it when I grew up (a red flag if there was ever one), so there was no frame of reference.

But after 20 years of tinkering, adding more ingredients, and a lot of trial and error, I think I’ve nailed it down. The ketchup and cola actually work well together: The caramel flavor of the cola concentrates as it cooks down, and the ketchup’s tomato-onion-garlic savoriness tempers the sweetness. A few extra savory and spicy balancers like mustard and Worcestershire sauce give it character. Using pepper strips instead of diced peppers adds that earthy bell pepper flavor to the beef, but makes it way easier to fish out than those little veggie chunks.

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The result is a sloppy joe that puts a canned mix to shame. Of course, this is like saying it’s the best sweatpants you own. It’s not something you’ll pull out when the guests are over, but it’s perfect for something to put on the back of the stove on a weekend afternoon. It’s more Red Roof Inn than Ritz-Carlton, but I sure love it. As do my kids. Thanks Ratt. (Or Poz—or was it Lack?)

Photo: Kevin Pang

Cola sloppy joe

1 pound ground beef
1 cup ketchup
1 cup cola
1 red pepper
1/2 cup chicken broth
1 tsp. onion powder
2 cloves minced garlic
A few dashes of hot sauce
4-5 dashes of Worcestershire sauce
A one-Mississippi two-Mississippi squirt of yellow mustard
Salt and pepper to taste

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Cut the top and bottom off a red pepper, removing the seeds and white flesh. Cut it into thin strands. Mince two cloves of garlic.

In a Dutch oven, sauté ground beef over medium-high heat, adding salt and pepper to taste. Cook until brown, about five minutes. Once browned, pour out much of the rendered fat from the beef (otherwise, your sloppy joes will have a waxy texture). Add onion powder, then the minced garlic, sautéing for another two minutes. Now deglaze the bottom of your pan by adding the half cup of chicken broth (or water). Scrape off that crusty brown stuff—that’s flavor, baby.

Add the red pepper strips and a cup each of cola and ketchup, and simmer at a medium-low heat. After a few minutes, add more black pepper if you’d like, a few shakes of hot sauce, and a few spirals of yellow mustard.

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Continue cooking this over medium-low heat for about 30 minutes. Let it hang out there, stirring occasionally, lid off, so it’s still simmering, and reduce until it’s a really thick sauce. Eventually all the sauce will reduce down, until it ceases to be soupy, and more ground meat enveloped in sauce.

Taste as you go. It won’t lack sweetness. It may, however, need some salt or vinegar to balance it out—and you may consider adding more mustard, Worcestershire, or hot sauce. Trust your instincts.

Heap high and generous on hamburger buns. Pairs well with potato chips, a cold beverage, and a recital of the Pledge Of Allegiance.

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